The holy warrior

The most entertaining of current books on Osama bin Laden paints him as a devout, charismatic CEO of worldwide terror.

Published November 21, 2001 8:18PM (EST)

Without a doubt, Peter Bergen's "Holy War, Inc." is the most entertaining of the currently available books on Osama bin Laden. It's also the only one to deal with the Sept. 11 attacks; as he explains in an author's note, Bergen had just handed in his manuscript, six years in the making, in August 2001, and he and his publisher worked frantically to update the book after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit. Bergen is currently CNN's terrorism analyst and he produced the first televised interview with bin Laden for that network in 1997. He's also worked for ABC News and written articles for the New Republic and Vanity Fair. Unlike the wonks who wrote the bin Laden books published before Sept. 11, he's used to speaking to a general audience and he has a newsman's investment in accuracy and solid sourcing. He also seems free of the kind of murky agenda that drives Yossef Bodansky, author of "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America," a book that became a bestseller after the attacks.

For bin Laden watchers, "Holy War, Inc." is mostly familiar terrain, but Bergen keeps things interesting by debunking various rumors and theories regarding the dissident Saudi millionaire. Have you heard the one about bin Laden's "playboy years" of drinking and womanizing in Beirut? Well, Bergen counters, "those who know bin Laden  describe a deeply religious teenager who married at the age of 17." He similarly dismisses stories about bin Laden receiving an engineering degree from a university in the U.S., living in London, teaming up with Iraq to plot the 1998 African embassy bombings and receiving funds from the C.I.A. To reports of bin Laden's imminent demise from one of several terminal illnesses, he responds that the Saudi was given "months to live" all the way back in 1998. (He describes bin Laden as suffering from low blood pressure and diabetes, both controllable diseases.)

The less apocryphal aspects of bin Laden's life are all here. The 17th of about 50 children sired by a Yemeni porter who moved to Saudi Arabia and made good in the construction industry, bin Laden showed an early piety that deepened during his college years at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, where he encountered the man who would become his mentor, Abdullah Azzam. Bergen describes the charismatic Azzam, a Palestinian, as "the ideological godfather and global recruiter par excellence of Muslims drawn to the Afghan jihad." Azzam worked tirelessly to rustle up men and money for the cause, frequently visiting Broooklyn's infamous Alkhifa center -- a major fund-raising and recruiting center for the Afghan jihad -- in search of both. If he truly was the godfather of the "Afghan Arab" phenomenon, then he's also the godfather of many of the international terrorist groups plaguing the West today.

For bin Laden and the rest of the "Afghan Arabs" (a term used for foreign Islamists of all nationalities who came to fight the Soviets), the war was a galvanizing experience. Though they were "no more than extras" in a war won "primarily with the blood of the Afghans and secondarily with the treasure of the United States and Saudi Arabia," most of them, like bin Laden, felt the war was "an extraordinary spiritual experience." Victory, in their minds, proved that Allah was on their side. "What we benefited from most," said bin Laden to CNN, "was [that] the glory and myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind, but also in all of Muslims."

Unlike some other chroniclers of al-Qaida, Bergen never loses sight of the way religion infuses his subject's view of the world; bin Laden genuinely believes this stuff. He's David Koresh with $250 million and a small army of devoted and well-armed followers. If his religious fanaticism doesn't quite make bin Laden crazy, it often does make his motives and his interpretation of events a bit opaque to the secular West. For example, when bin Laden's agitation against his one-time friends, the royal family of Saudi Arabia, over the stationing of U.S. troops on the Arabian peninsula forced him to leave his homeland for Sudan, and then further pressure from both the Saudis and the Americans compelled the Sudanese to ask him to leave five years later, bin Laden didn't see himself as becoming an increasingly unpopular outlaw. Instead, his flight, according to Bergen, "recalled for him the Prophet Muhammad's emigration, or hijra, from Mecca to Medina in the 7th century." From Medina, Muhammed waged a holy war for years until he "retook mecca from the unbelievers." As a result, bin Laden saw his exile in Afghanistan as having a "profound spiritual importance" and as containing a promise of future triumph, however unlikely that may sound to you or me.

Bin Laden, like most idealistic radicals, makes a practice of finding hope and encouragement in daunting situations. Bergen, whose 1997 interview featured bin Laden's unprecedented claim that "Arabs affiliated with his group were involved in killing American troops in Somalia in 1993," says he finds the Saudi's boast uncharacteristic and "surprising." Bin Laden, after all, had "repeatedly dismissed efforts to link him to attacks on American soldiers in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996 and has denied any direct role in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998," all actions in which his operatives played more decisive roles. What Bergen misses is that the fighting in Somalia actually worked. It led to the withdrawal of American troops from that nation -- the kind of result that none of his other schemes has produced.

Still, Bergen's aversion to speculation makes it good to have his bracingly down-to-earth evaluation of the notion that the CIA "created" Bin Laden and the Afghan Arabs. He labels such charges "overblown" and "not supported by evidence." What the CIA did do, however, was commit "a significant tactical error"; that is, it allowed Pakistan's intelligence agency -- the ISI, a warm, moist breeding ground for Islamist militancy -- to distribute something like $3 billion to the Afghan resistance during the war with the Soviets. This made sense in an elementary way; the Pakistanis knew Afghanistan far better than the CIA did, after all. But the ISI, serving its own purposes, funneled the aid to the most virulently anti-Western mujahedin factions, particularly to the dreaded Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a one-time cohort of bin Laden's now said to be contemplating an Afghan comeback.

In short, the CIA was -- as we are now finding so much of America's intelligence industry to be -- pretty clueless. Still, it's hard to spy out a smarter course of action amid the usual shifting mess of Afghan tribal politics, despite Bergen's confidence that such a course existed. "Was there an alternative to Hekmatyar, to whom American support might have been better directed?" Bergen asks. "The answer is a resounding yes. The Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud was a moderate Islamist and a brilliant general, who never received American aid proportionate to his battlefield exploits."

This does appear to be true (Hekmatyar is said to have killed more Afghans than Soviets), but as Ahmed Rashid has pointed out in his book "Taliban," Massoud was an inept politician -- and it would have required a master to convince the Pakistanis to back a Tajik like Massoud over a fellow Pashtun. (A side note: It would be nice to learn more from Afghanistan experts about the Tajik commander Ismail Khan, who currently has control of Herat in western Afghanistan. He seems to have the best civic reputation of all the "warlords" currently returning to power.)

"Holy War, Inc." does come much closer than any other bin Laden book to conveying what sort of people al-Qaida operatives tend to be. First, there's their reverent devotion to a leader who, given the network's decentralized structure, most know only through reputation. But what a reputation! To rich and desperately poor alike, bin Laden's personal sacrifices to the cause are deeply moving. And they are genuine. Witness after witness tells Bergen that they have seen him living in the most modest of circumstances. "His followers really, really believe in him," a journalist who visited bin Laden in his cave said, recalling the leader's crude dwelling built from branches of trees. "They can see this millionaire, who sacrificed all those millions, and he is sitting with them in a cave, sharing their dinner, in a very, very humble way."

Bergen sketches the histories of a few al-Qaida members (the ones who were apprehended by authorities and became informants, mostly), ranging from Khalfan Kahmis Mohamed, a low-level go-fer who helped with the 1998 embassy bombing in Tanzania and had never even heard of al-Qaida, to the unnerving Ali Mohamed, an Egyptian-born American citizen (he married an American) who taught seminars to the U.S. Army Special Operations forces at Fort Bragg, worked for the counterterrorism department of Egyptair and had some kind of relationship with the CIA (the agency won't talk about it much). He spoke four languages and won commendations for his superb physical fitness and for his "expert use of the M-16 rifle." He also was a member of Egypt's terrorist Jihad group, took unauthorized leave to fight with the Afghan mujahideen in the '80s and became "an indispensable player in al-Qaida."

Although the reasons why a reasonably affluent and gifted individual like Ali Mohamed joined the group remain mysterious, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, son of impoverished African farmers, clearly suffered from a lack of purpose. A psychologist who testified at his trial and who is quoted by Bergen described him as "extremely deferential to religious authority and someone who had a rather empty life outside the mosque ... He went to Afghanistan for training, not just military training, but also ideological conditioning, which meant that Mohamed was indoctrinated beyond his first inchoate ideas to help suffering Muslims." As "Arabs" like Mohamed hold out in the besieged city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, it's important to remember that unlike most Afghan members of the Taliban forces, these men have been brainwashed to believe not just that martyrdom is glorious but that life without their cause has no meaning at all. Defection, for them, is not an option.

"Holy War, Inc." does have its flaws. There are the usual anecdotes about the absurd inefficiencies of undeveloped nations that the British seem to find so amusing: camels copulating in the middle of the road, the ancient guide who promptly falls asleep and jolly asides like "Memo to self: in the event of a kidnapping never be 'rescued' by a Third World Army." For Brits, Afghanistan is the wild, wild East, and the rest of us must sometimes be patient while they natter on about its "promise" of "mystery, a movement back into a time of medieval chivalry and medieval cruelty, an absence of the modern world that is both thrilling and disturbing," and so on.

A bigger problem is the book's scattered quality, which is less a result of Bergen's last-minute revisions than of the fact that when it was written Bergen couldn't expect to find large numbers of readers with an automatic interest in al-Qaida. As a result, "Holy War, Inc." is crammed with local color, digressive mini-profiles of interesting minor characters and other side stories, all seemingly in an effort to keep us entertained. Journalists with frequent deadlines, and especially television journalists like Bergen, are seldom called upon to explain the larger shape and patterns of events. As a result, "Holy War, Inc." feels like a collection of trees rather than a forest. Though it has a structure, it's constantly veering away from it distractedly; it's hard to grasp the book as anything more than a collection of interesting bits. You often have to make the connections for yourself.

The unifying theme that Bergen ostensibly hangs all this upon is his concept of "Holy War, Inc.," the idea that bin Laden has fused a "retrograde reading of holy war" with "21st-century communications and weapons technology," and then runs the whole thing like an international corporation. Bergen finds much to remark upon in the fact that al-Qaida uses statellite phones and e-mail, and that bin Laden's archaic-sounding proclamations are printed out from an Apple computer. This seems not nearly as striking or significant as the way that satellite channels like Al-Jazeera have circumvented government control of the media in many Arab countries and allowed samizdat ideas to spread unchecked, for better or (perhaps mostly) for worse. As a Kashmiri militant explained to Bergen, "This technology is a good thing, but we reject the civilization of the West." So far, that contradiction isn't tripping up many Islamists.

More interesting are Bergen's observations about how bin Laden stands for a "privatization of terrorism that parallels the movement by many countries in the past decade to convert their state-supported industries to privately held companies." Apparently, the atavism of the free market has more than one face. And isn't it intriguing that the man who ostensibly brought the corporate approach to terrorism is facing off against the American said to have patterned his presidency after the example of big business? Do both use the most primitive language -- "evildoers," "soldiers of Satan" -- to rally people to what's essentially a battle for market share?

I think not. If bin Laden weren't deluded enough to believe that Allah will grant his clever, but minuscule organization victory over the world's only superpower, he wouldn't have picked this fight to begin with. While Bergen, in his afterword, is correct that bin Laden's complaints are primarily political -- U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, U.S. support for Israel, U.S. bombing of and sanctions against Iraq, etc. -- his approach to addressing them is demented.

And even if bin Laden got everything he's called for, which is Muslim rule over more or less all the land of the caliphate (roughly the equivalent of the Ottoman Empire), it's not clear that he'd be satisfied with that. After all, he supports Islamist militants who demand an independent state in the Philippines, which is a far cry from the caliphate. It seems likely, from statements his mentor, Azzam, has made, that bin Laden has inherited the belief that any nation with a Muslim population should be under Islamist rule. And those are imperial ambitions that even Bill Gates can't match.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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